The folktales, legends and anecdotes devoted to the wily spider Anansi span the world like an infinite web of stories – not on paper, but in the form of an oral tradition. For centuries these stories, full of joy, inspiration and nostalgia, have been handed down from generation to generation, and they continue to be told today by the members of the African diaspora.
Text: Naomi Teekens
De verhalen over de mythische spin zijn afkomstig uit de orale verteltraditie van de Asante gemeenschap in het huidige Ghana, West-Afrika. In hun taal – het Akan – is anansi het woord voor spin. In de oorspronkelijke verhalen was Anansi een bode van de goden, die met
lange gesponnen draden de aarde betrad om de mensen sociaal ethische wijsheden en inzichten bij te brengen. Daarom werd de spin in de vele oude vertellingen, die zich langzaam over de westkust van het Afrikaanse continent verspreidden, regelmatig vergeleken met de zon, waarbij de planeet het lichaam verbeeldde en haar stralen de poten symboliseerden. Anansi bracht de mensen immers verlichting in de vorm van normen en waarden. Hij deed dit door mensen hun zwaktes en zonden, zoals hebzucht en overdadige trots, te tonen en leidde hen door middel van raadsels en onverwacht inventieve wendingen naar de waarheid. Anansi werd daarom ook door velen beschouwd als de schepper van de morele mens en hiermee als bemiddelaar tussen de mensen op aarde en de goden in de hemel.
A new world, a new significance
At the end of the 15th century, heaven must have seemed far away to many of the people of West Africa. With the advent of the intercontinental slave trade (‘the Middle Passage’), many African tribespeople were kidnapped from the interior and taken to the shores of the ‘New World’*. Under European domination they were robbed of their dignity and pride. Chained in the dark hold of a slave ship and branded on their shoulder or chest, they were forced to endure a months-long voyage in order to work the cacao, coffee and sugarcane plantations of the Americas. But they brought their treasury of Anansi stories with them.
On the plantations of the ‘New World’, the stories about the spider acquired a new context, and thus a new significance. They were no longer about Anansi as the messenger of the gods, but about the conflict between the little spider and the cruel tiger Tigri. The spider was no longer a mythical character but rather the embodiment of the oppressed slaves themselves, while the powerful and greedy Tigri became the symbol for the colonial overlord. Thus the Anansi-toris evolved into compelling stories of resistance and struggle, because the ever-resourceful Anansi always proves to be too clever for Tigri, despite the latter’s superior strength. In this way the Anansi-toris effortlessly took on the color of their new environment, a chameleon-like quality that is an inextricable part of this resilient oral tradition.
‘Kri Kra’ - unique stories in a multitude of voices
Honoring traditions and customs was important to the enslaved Africans. In a new world that repudiated and denied their identity and culture, they found the foundation of their original identity in the storytelling tradition. From the very start, people told Anansi-toris at night as a way of momentarily forgetting their suffering and sorrows. In Surinam, for example, the stories were told during a torinéti (night watch). One speaker would start off, telling a particular story from their own perspective, and then another would join in, uttering the words ‘Kri Kra’ and then offering their version of the tale. This makes each Anansi story unique because each speaker would retell it in their own way. Nothing was set in stone: every moment, new stories arose from different perspectives. This interplay of voices and perspective continually feeds into an infinite and dynamic narrative web. In this way the African oral storytelling tradition has been able to survive and the stories will always be with us.
* A Eurocentric name for the Americas, which were ‘discovered’ by Europeans in 1492 and which they sought to dominate.